As part of an on-going series of features on local female councillors, reporter Rory Mooney talks to Councillor Angela Dobbins about growing up as a staunch SDLP supporter, the impact of the death of her daughter, and following in the footsteps of former mayor Colum Eastwood’s shoes in becoming the SDLP’s newest councillor
Being new to any role is a daunting experience, however for the SDLP’s newest councillor that has not been the case. Angela Dobbins has “hit the ground running” since her co-option onto the council in October last year, and she insists that she is not phased by following in the footsteps of some of Derry’s best known politicians, such as Mary Bradley and Colum Eastwood.
Like many families in Derry, Angela was passed on her support of the SDLP through her parents, who were life long supporters of John Hume.
“In those days you were told who to vote for,” Angela said. “But once you were out of the house, married and with a family you made up your own mind. It was always John Hume and the SDLP. I agreed with what they were doing, fighting a political battle without the gun.”
Originally from Rosemount, Angela who is the eldest of eight children, is thankful that none of her family was involved in the ‘Troubles’.
“I have six brothers and I’m thankful and grateful that none of them were ever arrested or were involved in the troubles and there’s not a lot of families that can say the same.”
As a teenager Angela began her working life in O’Donnell’s pharmacy, however working in Essex’s as a factory girl Angela was to experience her first taste of social activism.
“The factory was like one big family. We were like a giant community.
“I would have got involved with unions and the shop stewards, and active in terms of helping the workers.”
During this period in her life Angela admits that she was not politically active and preferred to stay away to raise her own family along with husband Michael.
However, tragedy was to strike the Dobbins family with the heartbreaking death of her daughter, Carolyn, who died of Meningococcal Meningitis when she was one and a half years old.
“She was her own wee person with her own wee personality,” Angela explained. “But it made me made stronger and it made me more balanced when she died. I seemed to have an old woman‘s head on young shoulders. There were a lot of people who came to me for advice and asking how to cope with this and that.
“It gave me an outlook on life that things might be bad but there’s things out there that’s a lot worse and that’s why I want to help people and give a voice to people who haven’t got one.”
Angela has a degree in Business Studies specialising in accounting in which she admits to just “scraping through”, however Angela believes that going back to education gave her a motivation that she still has to this day.
“It was hard trying to juggle all those balls in the air but I wanted to do it and it was like I had something to prove and I did prove it. I proved something to myself.”
An SDLP elected representative for 26 years - Mary Bradley was to prove as an inspiration for Angela when she joined the SDLP only six years ago.
“Mary Bradley was my mentor. She showed me what route to take and how to stay on it. Mary taught me so much and showed me what it was like to be a local politician.
“She was the person who proposed me for council.”
Since joining the party in 2006, Angela has had a somewhat meteoric rise through the party ranks, holding a number of positions in the party before being given the honour by the party to represent the SDLP at council level in last year’s May elections.
“I’m not afraid to speak my mind and I’ll argue my point but in joining the Shantallow branch of the SDLP, somebody must have seen something in me. I became a party delegate, then a treasurer and then I ran for election.”
Despite narrowly missing out being elected to Derry City council, Angela admits being asked to replace Colum Eastwood was a daunting proposition given Colum’s successful year as mayor and election to the Assembly.
“It was very daunting,” Angela explains. “He’s such a big figure, well liked and young.
“It was daunting more for my age, I would be classed as middle-aged even though I hate that word.
“Colum’s young, free and dynamic whereas I wouldn’t be out there in the public as him, I like to do more in the background.”
Politics, Angela has found has come at the right time for her, she is able to fully commit to her council responsibilities as her family is grown up now.
“Because I am mature, my family are older teenagers, they’re young ladies now. They do their own thing, I can devote more time to council. If it had of been a few years back, the story might have been different.
“I don’t know how these younger councillors do it with their young families. It must be really hard on them.”
The SDLP is the biggest party in the Foyle constituency, however only three out of their 14 councillors is a woman and Angela insists that the party is trying to rectify the situation by changing its constitution to ensure more women are able to stand.
“I’m a member of the women’s group in the SDLP and we are trying to get it brought into our constitution whereas there will be an even percentage of men and women.
“I had a chance to talk to sixth year politics students and there’s a lot girls going for politics, so in five years it’s going to be different.
“But at this point in time the women’s group in the SDLP are trying to get it put into our constitution, which is our bible for the SDLP that there will be a good ratio of men and women “The women who are in the SDLP are very strong and very open. We do be heard.”
In her so far short political life, Angela’s main highlight has been her co-option onto the council where she says that she wants to help the people of Culmore and Derry as much as she can.
“The Culmore area of the city has some of the highest levels of rates in Derry but it’s seriously lacking in facilities. Apart from the schools we have nothing. We don’t even have a community centre. That’s why I got into politics to help people.
“If there’s a few families out there who say that ‘councillor Dobbins helped us with this’, and ‘councillor Dobbins helped us with that’, that’s all I want.”